The term “games are won in the trenches” at this point has become an NFL cliché, but it hasn’t lost its importance, as this is foundational football.
With the game revolving around jaw dropping catches, amazing runs and perfect spirals, it’s easy for offensive linemen to be overlooked. Let’s be real, fans respect the perfect block, but we downright salivate over the big play. We watch whole segments devoted to one hand catches, long touchdown runs and perfectly timed “dimes” dropped in for a TD. Sometimes we forget who/what is typically responsible for those plays, the “hog mollies.”
The offensive linemen are the foundation that a house is built on. Unfortunately, not all houses are built equally and the use of cheap labor and supplies will eventually show its cracks. As of late, the Jets fanbase are all too familiar with this outdated approach.
So, who are the key architects in the NFL? What have the Jets failed to do and what is the blueprint for success?
Although investing in premium drafts picks remains part of the design for long term success, being active in free agency and a having prowess for talent evaluation throughout the draft is pivotal. With the right personnel and scouting department, gems can also be found in “Round 8” as undrafted free agents. The Steelers (#1 ranked OL in 2018 according to Pro Football Focus), for example, had two undrafted free agents in their starting lineup coupled with two foundational players, DeCastro (Round 1) and Pouncey (Round 1).
Every team, aside from two, that finished in Pro Football Focus’ top 15 last season (2018) had at least one first round pick on their offensive line. The Saints, Chiefs, Titans, Falcons, Browns, and Steelers had two; the Colts, Cowboys and 49ers each had three.
The sixth ranked (OL) Rams didn’t possess any first round selections, but they had three second round picks, which included 2017 free agent Andrew Whitworth (LT). The addition of stalwart left tackle, Whitworth, propelled the Rams’ offensive line from a 27th ranking at best—the previous 3 years—to consecutive seasons in the sixth spot (according to Pro Football Focus). The added protection did wonders for Goff’s career—who many critics deemed a bust—and saw Todd Gurley have a resurgence of his own, after a failed 2016 campaign, in which he averaged a meager 3.2 yards per carry. While new head coach Sean McVay provided needed change, nobody can deny what the incorporation of a foundational player—on the offensive line—did for the Rams as whole, as they rode their dominant O-line all the way to the Superbowl in 2018.
The other top 15 team missing a first rounder in 2018 were the Patriots. However, New England arguably possesses the best offensive line coach in the NFL (Scarnecchia) and regularly used picks to bolster the offensive line. The Patriots selected nine offensive linemen during Maccagnan’s tenure, one of which was a first rounder (Isaiah Wynn, 2018). Although, Wynn was injured last offseason, he is expected to start as LT in 2019.
All things considered, in this week’s “Joe Jet 5” I predict which offensive line units will finish in the top five when the 2019 season concludes.
1) Indianapolis Colts: The legend of Chris Ballard—this chronicle is a great example of what a new general manager and philosophy can do for a struggling team and its offensive line. Ballard didn’t hesitate to spend premium picks in order to ensure the health of his franchise QB, by selecting Quenton Nelson (Round 1) and Braden Smith (Round 2) in the 2018 NFL draft. The Colts subsequently went from basement dwellers—so to speak—to the third ranked offensive line this past season. Indianapolis ranked second in pass protection and gave up the fewest sacks (18) according to Football Outsiders. Defensive lineman no longer use Luck like a figurative piñata. He has a new colt (Quenton Nelson) and four solid horse shoes to keep him firmly on the ground. Don’t be surprised if this saga ends in a parade.
2) New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees’ dry cleaning bills are some of the cheapest in the league as the offensive line has kept his uniform spotless for over a decade. This past season, the Saints’ “big uglies” were ranked third in pass protection, first in QB hits allowed and only gave up 20 sacks (second fewest in the league). The Saints lost pro bowl center Max Unger to retirement, but they prudently moved up to the second round to draft his replacement, Erik McCoy. New Orleans is the least penalized line in the league and still has three pro bowl players up front. The Saints very well may march into Super Bowl LIV with the second best OL in the league.
3) Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles have remained perennial studs at the O-line for the last 10 years. Even with an injury to RG Brandon Brooks, I don’t foresee anything changing. Philadelphia added first round pick Andre Dillard (OT) to an already stout group with solid depth: H. Vaitai (came up big in Super Bowl run), Stefen Wisniewski, Matt Pryor and Jordan Mailata.
4) Dallas Cowboys: With the absence of Travis Frederick (C) the Cowboys fell out of the top five for the first time in six seasons. Dallas still managed to rank in the top 15 (Pro Football Focus) but sorely missed their center. With the anchor in the lineup and the troops back together again, I fully expect a return to previous prominence, when Dallas maintained a 4.3 percent adjusted sack rate, ranked third in power (run blocking), and fourth in pass protection in 2017 (Football Outsiders).
5) Atlanta Falcons: This pick may be surprising since Matt Ryan was sacked on 42 occasions and hit another 100 times last season; the Falcons fell out of the top six (offensive lines) as well as maintained a losing record for the first time since 2014. However, the front office quickly addressed the issue with the selection of Chris Lindstrom (G) and Kaleb McGary (OT) in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft. The Falcons are currently following a similar formula that catapulted the team into the Superbowl—with the sixth ranked offensive line in 2016—when they signed Andy Levitre (G, 2015), Chris Chester (G, 2015), and Alex Mack (C, 2016). At some point in the season, Atlanta could potentially have a first-round pick at every position on the OL, including the 10th ranked LT (Jake Matthews) and one of the best centers in the league (Alex Mack). It may take some time for the offensive line to gel, but I fully expect a Colts like metamorphosis; this bird of prey is going to eat.